Richard Garriott Interview

Gamasutra has slapped up a five-page interview with Richard Garriott about his new Portalarium venture, improving interactive dialogue, developing games where combat isn't a central focus, how he's moved away from programming over the years, and much more. Two lengthy questions:
What about the stories that exist between the players, versus top-down narrative?

RG: So, the analogy I would give you is the early days of Dungeons & Dragons on paper. I was one of the earliest adopters of Dungeons & Dragons on paper, and every Friday and Saturday night throughout my high school time, we would have a group of 30 to 40 people that would play at my house, my parents' house, usually in two or three or four games at once in different rooms for years.

But as the game gained popularity, an interesting thing changed. Early Dungeons & Dragons, no one cared about the rules. No one cared about what your +2 or +3 sword was because it was irrelevant. What really mattered is if you had a great gamemaster who was weaving a great story you all got to play your part in.

And if your team did something that was fun and clever and would not have worked, the guy would roll some dice back here, but it worked because it was fun and clever.

If you were doing something really stupid or boring, it didn't work, funny thing. And so what it became is a dialogue discourse between a great gamemaster and engaged players.

Well, once D&D became more and more popular and you ran out of good storytellers for gamemasters, it devolved, in my mind, into the [talks with a lisp] "Well, I'm standing behind you and I've got a +3 sword, and I've got a slight advantage because my dexterity is a little higher", and they do complicated calculations, then once every five minutes, roll die, and say you win. Which I think it not roleplaying.

It might be a fun game... This is my personal definition; most people don't adhere to this. Diablo, great game. Loved it. For me, I use the term "RPG" for it because it is a stats game. It's a "Do I have the best armor equipment compared to the creature I'm facing?" There's not really any story for it. It's a great challenge reward cycle game. Blizzard, by the way, does the best challenge reward cycle games I've seen.

On the other hand, Thief or Ultima are role-playing games versus RPG -- which I know stands for role-playing game. When I think of a role-playing game, it is now where you are charged with playing an actual role and qualitative aspects of how you play are every bit as important as what equipment you use. That's what I find most interesting. It's a lot easier to do stories there.

And while I think your question really came from what about the story that has naturally evolved between players, clearly that's what's profoundly important about any shared experience.

But if you only rely on that, if you just create a sandbox and say, "You guys make your own stories," it goes back to D&D. There's no context. There's no guidance. There's no showcasing. A good game should constantly lead you over the next hill to see what's on the other side, and it's got to be something of wonder that you and your friends all get to share.


I have heard that you in the past did a scenario wherein the combat wasn't so much important as the way you were comporting yourself.

RG: Yes. Ultima IV... Here's the challenge and reward of doing that. What's interesting about Ultima IV is it was very different than any other game I'd made previously, although I've tried to incorporate many elements of that in future games.

When I was writing it, I wasn't sure anybody would get it. When I would explain it to friends and family, they absolutely did not get it, and yet it was the first number one best-selling Ultima I ever did by far. It's really what put Ultima on the map.

What's interesting about it is when you create a game around combat, it's pretty easy to go, "You know, you have weapons that go from wimpy to tough. You got armor that goes from wimpy to tough. You got creatures that go from wimpy to tough. And my skill and experience is going to go from wimpy to tough." So, it's just this feathering of constantly increasing challenge and reward. It's a system you can put aside and say, "We're done."

When you think of the movie Star Wars, what's interesting about it is it's not the same battle over and over again, just a little tougher. There's actually a story arc. Each challenge is unique compared to the previous challenge.

Well, that means, in a gaming sense, you need to code it uniquely in many ways. It's not a system anymore. Or if it there's any systematic-ness to it, it's a lot more elements and a lot more moving parts. It's a lot harder to balance than just everything gets tougher.

So, what I did with Ultima IV is I actually created a game where the game told you, in words, that it was going to be monitoring your behavior. But when you did deeds good, bad, or otherwise, there was no point system that you were aware of that was going up or down. And so you could never be sure when you were being tested and when you weren't.

And some tests would be easy for me to do. Like if you stole money from a shop, that's pretty easy for me to test, so I'm going to record it. I'm not going to tell you. I'm not going to stop you. I'm not going to tell you, but I am going to record it. It wasn't really easy to lie to somebody and really test it very well, you know what I mean? Even if I set up one case in the whole game where you could, I couldn't make a system out of it.

But again, I at least made you think it so you'd be worried about it. So, I the entire overarching part of the game was to create this sense of, "Hey, I'm responsible for my own actions in this game, and some of them, an unknown fraction of it, is going to reflect on how the world reacts to me." If you cheated that NPC, later on, you were going to back and need something from that NPC, and he'd say, "I'd like to help you, but you're the most dishonest thieving scumbag I've ever met, so no way."'¨

Here's where the Ultima IV epiphany happened for me. My previous games -- Akalabeth, Ultima I, Ultima II, and Ultima III -- I published all but Ultima III through other publishers. Ultima III was Origin's first game, my company's first game.'¨'¨That was the first time I got letters, what you might call fan mail, from people. And fan mail in our industry is one paragraph of, "Hey, I really like your game," and usually pages of "Here's what you did wrong," or, "Let me tell you how to make your next game."'¨

But what became clear when I would read that mail is how people were interpreting my games in a very different way than I had made them, or they were interpreting things into it that just weren't there. They were just reading things into the game.

I was like, "Wow, it's fascinating how much people are reading between the lines. It's just not there." And also, I was going like, "Okay, the storyline for Ultima I: go kill Mondain the wizard, who sits in his castle and waits for you to come kill him, and you go loot corpses on the way to get there and probably take advantage of villagers on the way. Ultima II: Go kill Minax the enchantress, his lover, and on they go. Pillage and plunder. Ultima III: Go kill Exodus, their offspring, and pillage and plunder on the way."

And I'm going like, "God, I'm so tired of telling this story." '¨'¨And, by the way, that's still the same story almost every game still has to this day. And I'm going like, "Okay, there's got to be more to life than writing the go kill the evil wizard story." And combine that with the fact that people were reading so much into my games that was just never there, and they were playing by pillaging and plundering a lot more than I thought they were.

And so I'm going, "Okay. I'm going to make a game where the world..." I really had no moral message I was trying to tell. What I was trying to do was craft a world where the world responded to you in the same way the real world responds to you. If you behave like a jerk, no one's going to like you and no one's going to help you, and you're not going to be successful. And thus laid the groundwork for Ultima IV.